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By the Banks of Styx
Ophira trembled as a sharp gust of wind threw her off her feet. Thankfully, she was not so close to the river’s edge. She only collided with a slight old man who tossed her an unfriendly glance.
“What respect do they have for elders these days,” he barked, flaying his cane in the air. “Here I am ready to meet great Dis himself and people still make free to push and prod me around.”
Ophira sped away, bumping into several other people who were just as friendly as the slight old man. She wasn’t easy to miss since there were not many children present in the lifeless crowd. The only other children were a pack of boys crying in unison for their mothers. Since Ophira’s own mother had already departed across the dark river, Styx, to the kingdom of DIs and his melancholy bride, she could only look forward to their reunion.
Most of the spirits sat together, talking of what may become of them in the land of the dead. But one man sat apart, skipping rocks on a narrow ledge above the waves. Each rock he threw hopped at least five times, creating scores of ripples which animated the still water. Ophira walked up to him.
“Excuse me sir, “she said, entranced by the bouncing stones. “How do you make the rocks skip like that?”
The man looked up at Ophira. He had round face and a pleasant smile. He could not have been more than nineteen or twenty.
“Ah, that is a secret trick that my great grandfather, an honored hero in his own right, taught me.”
“You see,“ he said, picking up another pebble from the ground, “It’s all about the shape of the stone and how you throw it.”
The pebble he had picked up was rough and circular. The man tossed it aside and picked up smoother one. He held the stone between his right index finger and thumb and then tossed it from a side angle. Ophira gaped as the stone barely grazed the water and bounced not once or twice but nine times before sinking into the depths below.
“Here, I can teach you.”
It was not long before Ophira, too, could skip rocks and she and the young man soon made it a contest to see who could skip the rocks farther. Ophira won every time because the young man, who had made the stones hop nine times before, had somehow lost his incredible talent. He didn’t seem at all upset, Ophira thought; instead he praised her newfound ability while chuckling to himself.
“You know, “the man said, after some time had passed. “ I am not sad to leave the world behind.”
“But won’t you miss your family, “ Ophira asked, incredulously.
“Yes, but I was a warrior in battle. I died an honorable death and my family will be praised for my bravery.”
“You are a warrior, “Ophira exclaimed, waving her small hands in the air.
“Yes, “the man laughed, “And, hopefully, with the goodwill of the gods, I will be taken to the Elysian Fields where all great heroes reside. Can you imagine talking to the likes of Heracles and Theseus? ”
“I just want to see my mother again,” Ophira whispered.
She looked down at her lap for a moment while the man stared out into dark, cloudless horizon. Then something shiny beside the man caught Ophira’s attention.
“Look,” she pointed.” Something fell out of your pocket. It’s flat and smooth. Will you skip it?”
The man looked down and saw that his golden coin had, indeed, fallen from his pocket.
“By gods no, of course I won’t throw it in the river.” He said. “Don’t you know how important this is?”
Ophira shook her head.
“I’ve never seen one of those before. It is very shiny.”
“Never seen one of these before…why don’t you have one?” The young man looked grave.
Somehow he hadn’t noticed her tattered dress and dirty face before. Someone had neglected to give the girl a proper burial. A deep sorrow entered his heart as he tore his eyes away from the unfortunate girl. Then he saw it in the horizon. A black, sail-less ferry was heading towards the riverbank with considerable speed.
“It’s here, “ Ophira said, jumping up and down with excitement.
The young man, on the other hand did not seem very excited. He looked at the ferry and then at the little girl. Back at the ferry and again at the little girl.
“Hmm…I’ve taught you how to skip rocks but how far do you think you can throw them.”
“Very far, “Ophira claimed.
“Well, take this coin and see if you can throw it back to me aboard the ferry.”
Ophira raced to the river’s edge, kicking grey sand into the air, where the ferry had landed. A gaunt looking man, who carried the oars, helped her onto the boat. But before she could try to throw the coin back to the young man the boatman took it from her. Her protests were silenced when a flock of people pushed her to the ground as they tried to make room for themselves. Ophira was still trying to squeeze herself through to the side when the boat began to move. She couldn’t see that one man was left sitting on the shore, skipping rocks.
Many years went by and the man continued to sit there, in limbo. But when a hundred years had passed something amazing happened. A fleet of golden ships came across the river, brightening the dull sky. To the young man’s amazement, a group of soldiers in silver armor carried him aboard. He was taken straight to the fields of glory, reserved only for the best of men. For the greatest hero is one of kindness as well as strength.